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Poroshenko urged to give 6 million rural Ukrainians their freedom after 18 long years

Halya Coynash
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has the power to restore the rights of 6 million Ukrainian citizens but will he use it? 

Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has the power to restore the rights of 6 million Ukrainian citizens but will he use it?  Owners of plots of agricultural land, over half of whom are now over 50, have been prevented from selling their own property for the last 18 years, and without the President’s intervention, this evident violation of their rights is set to continue. 

A coalition, made up of groups representing agricultural business, NGOs fighting corruption and / or defending human rights and others, has issued an appeal to the President.  They call on him to use his right of veto to stop the latest extension of an 18-year-long ‘temporary’ moratorium on the sale of agricultural land. 

As reported, the moratorium preventing either individuals or legal entities from selling or otherwise disposing of agricultural land, except through inheritance, exchanges or government appropriation, was first imposed in 2001.  It was supposed to remain in force only until the beginning of 2005, however it has been extended every year since then.  The moratorium was purportedly aimed at protecting those who received plots of agricultural land after the Soviet kolkhozes (collective farms) were dissolved.  The argument even since has been, that until the laws on a State land cadastre, on the land market and on land plot registration have been passed, land could be taken away from the poor and end up in the hands of oligarchs or even bought out by Russians, and that it will cease being used for agricultural purposes.

There has been no progress on producing the necessary legislation and, as the appeal makes clear, the owners of the land do not feel ‘protected’, quite the contrary. 

Yet, on 20 December 2018, a small majority of MPs voted on 20 December 2018 for a draft bill  which extends the moratorium for another year.  That bill has now been signed by the Verkhovna Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy and was sent for the President’s signature on 18 January 2019. 

On that same day, the coalition issued their appeal asking Poroshenko to “grant freedom” to those living in rural areas by abolishing the moratorium on sale and purchase of agricultural land.

This moratorium is not just having a direct and negative impact on the economic well-being and rights of 16% of Ukraine’s population who own plots of land, and their relatives, but on the entire legal agricultural sector.

The moratorium harms all of those whom the authorities should be defending: individuals; legal business; local communities; farming enterprises that want to invest in the development of farming technology and rural areas in Ukraine”.

The rights of 6 million people are being violated, as they cannot freely dispose of their own property by selling it or receiving fair payment for having to let it.  Around 60% of these owners are 50 or older, and in very many cases, where the owners do not have heirs or cannot work the land themselves, the ability to sell or obtain fair rent for the land would significantly improve their standard of living.  They calculate that 1,4 million original owners have died since the Verkhovna Rada first began imposing this moratorium and thus never had the chance to enjoy their ownership rights to the full.

The authors point out that the moratorium is robbing local communities and the state coffers of legal revenue from the taxes they would receive if agreements of land sale were legally drawn up.  According to the Centre for Economic Strategy, around 2,8 billion UAH is being lost in this way.

Human rights groups have for many years warned, as does this appeal, that by  blocking a free market in land, the moratorium is actually encouraging shady deals on buying and selling and a shadow market which creates possibilities for corruption among those in charge of state or communally-owned land.

It is the political will that is lacking, not the popular will. A survey carried out in 2018 by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that over 66% of those asked believed that people owning land must be able to dispose of it as they choose.

It is not only popular opinion that MPs ignored on 20 December, but also the European Court of Human Rights.  In its judgement of 22 May 2018, in the Case of Zelenchuk and Tsytsyura v. Ukraine, the Court agreed that the two separate applicants’ rights under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated.  The said Protocol states that “Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions”. 

While accepting the above-mentioned arguments, presented by the Government, the Court in Strasbourg considered that Ukraine had not reached a fair balance between the claimants and the general interests of the community, and had exceeded its powers.

In this case, the Court ordered the government to pay only the applicants’ costs, not compensation.  This, however, could change if Ukraine’s legislators continue putting off the reforms needed, while maintaining a moratorium found to be in violation of the European Convention.  In an interview on the eve of the vote on 20 December, Ivan Lishchyna, the Deputy Justice Minister, suggested that, if (or when) the Court loses patience, Ukraine could end up paying billions of UAH in compensation to agricultural landowners who turn to ECHR for justice.  

The Coalition is calling on President Poroshenko to help put an end to procrastination on the systematic reforms needed “and to give Ukrainians the possibility to freedom dispose of their property, and enable business to finally receive transparent, predictable, legal and understandable rules of play regarding working with land.

They ask the President to use his power of veto, combining this with his right to submit legislative initiatives by introducing his own draft law on the sale of agricultural land.

The appeal has been endorsed by several business or agrarian bodies, including the Ukrainian Agrarian Business Club; the National Association of Banks of Ukraine; and the Union of Ukrainian Entrepreneurs; by the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and Kharkiv Human Rights Group;  the Centre for Economic Strategy, and other NGOs or media who focus on economic reforms, fighting corruption, etc.  It is also signed by 15 MPs from different parties.

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